House of Flying Reference Marks

Last spring, when answering a reader’s question about our favorite characters to draw, I got to spend some time with some of our beloveds: the and ß that rarely see the light of day, as well as H&FJ’s middle name, &. It took great self-control not to spill the beans about another pair of favorites, the dagger and double dagger, for already waiting in the wings were my favorite daggers to ever come out of H&FJ. They’re the ones in our just-released Sentinel family, seen here.

Daggers come from that archipelago of typographic symbols known as reference marks, which refer readers elsewhere for explanatory or exegetic notes. The traditional first-order reference mark is the asterisk¹¹ The New Oxford English Dictionary advises: “Avoid pronouncing this word ‘astericks’ or ‘asterik,’ as many regard such pronunciations as uneducated.” Frighteningly, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2003) cites some printed examples of the spellings “astericks” and “asterick,” in The Washington Times (1998) and Florida Today (1999), respectively., a longtime favorite: in The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst observes that asterisks have been in continuous use for five thousand years. Asterisks can take countless forms, though custom favors ones shaped like stars, flowers, or bathtub faucets; any number of petals is permissible as well, with five-, six-, and eight-lobed asterisks being most common. [Clock starts now in anticipation of the world’s first seven-lobed asterisk. —Ed.] The approach that a designer follows in the asterisk is usually echoed in the typeface’s second-order reference mark, the dagger (also known as the obelus, obelisk, or long cross), and its third-order mark, the double dagger (a.k.a. diesis or double obelisk.) Both characters have functions in genealogy and other life sciences, where the asterisk indicates the year of birth (*1499), and the dagger the year of death (†1561). There are standard fourth-, fifth- and sixth-order reference marks, too: they are the section mark (§), parallels (||), and number sign (#), after which the cycle repeats with doubles, triples, and so on: *, †, ‡, §, ||, #, **, ††, ‡‡, §§, ||||, ###, ***, †††, ‡‡‡, etc. Beyond three, numbered footnotes are always preferable, even if you are David Foster Wallace.

Daggers afford the type designer a rare opportunity to quote from more widely recognized visual languages, such as architecture and other applied arts. The daggers in our H&FJ Didot family echo the kinds of details common in period decoration, and those in Whitney evoke the simplified asterisk of the typewriter, its center removed to prevent the buildup of ink. In Sentinel, we wanted the design’s industrial brawn to be mellowed by some lyrical flourishes, which in the daggers produced a ‘twisted quillon²² Dagger anatomy, for the quiz: the quillon is the guard that separates the hilt of a knife from its blade, and the choil is the notch where the blade meets the quillon.’ that you’ll find in another place slab serifs traditionally reside: find a pack of playing cards, and look closely at the dagger of the “suicide king.” —JH


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